Cultivating The Student Growth Mindset
Matt Renwick, Principal and notable writer on literacy, leadership, and technology answered questions on modeling for success in schools. Renwick shares his experiences as an administrator and educator in creating an environment of trust inside schools, reinforced by a positive community culture. Renwick adds detail to his learner vision in his recent article, "Leadership Strategies For Building the Mindset Around Student Growth." The article speaks not only of promoting a growth mindset but encourages better learning through a collective commitment from administrators, educators, students and the community as a whole.
For a detailed look at topics explored see Renwick's full article below interview
Rod Berger: You have a diverse background in education, Matt. How have these experiences informed your current position and opinion regarding the role "community" plays in education and leadership within the walls of our schools?
Matt Renwick: I have been a part of four schools now. A common thread that I have noticed in my experiences is how the community can have such an influence on the teaching and leadership of the building. By community, I mean the climate (how people feel about the school) and the culture (how people act within the community). The climate within a community is a direct result of the level of trust exhibited by staff and administrators, and among staff as colleagues. It is why I invest so much effort, especially in the beginning, in focusing on the conditions for success. It includes a safe and orderly school environment, a common approach to student struggles, and an agreed upon set of norms that all staff adheres to regarding academic and behavioral expectations. Without this trust, founded through reliable routines and habits, student achievement is fleeting.
RB: You talk about goals and identifying what excellence looks like in the piece below. When you reflect on your history in education when did you first witness excellence and how did that specific experience alter your previous assumptions?
MR: Before teaching, my initial assumptions were that some students were naturally more gifted than others based strictly on their cognitive prowess in literacy and numeracy. My first observation of true student success derailed this misconception. It was seemingly small at first, yet became so important to my future as an educator. As a new teacher of 5th and 6th graders, I integrated a geometry unit with an engineering project on bridge building. These disciplinary connections were powerful. Even more important were the recognitions students received for their creativity, leadership, and team concept. By acknowledging these non-cognitive skills, students came to understand that we valued their processes as well as what they produced.
A memorable experience was when a former student came back to visit me. She was not my strongest math student, yet she brought a lot of leadership to her bridge building team, through her ability to help peers collaborate and stay focused on their goals. This student received a team concept award for her invaluable contributions. When she returned to my classroom a year later, she informed me that she was now getting an “A” in her math class at the junior high. I take a lot of pride in knowing that this celebration made a difference in her life. One singular experience has guided my decision-making when advocating for all students.
RB: Modeling. You derive your approach to leadership on the role 'modeling' plays in the exchanges between leadership, students, and teachers. How can district and building leaders model, for one another, best practices to strengthen the professional community of those tasked with leading a district and school?
MR: Modeling what we expect of our teachers and students as educational leaders are essential to the success of a school. How we conduct ourselves not just during school meetings and professional development offerings, but also in our everyday interactions with students and teachers, is essential to the growth of our organization. It is why I named my blog Reading by Example (readingbyexample.com), and my Twitter handle is @ReadByExample. The students and teachers look to the school leader in how they should conduct themselves on a daily basis. They notice everything. We gain credibility when our actions align with our words.
To extend these demonstrations of leadership, I recommend that all educational leaders get on Twitter and start following colleagues. They can use hashtags such as #edchat (education chat) and #cpchat (connected principals chat) to identify administrators worth following. How they conduct themselves online is usually a reliable indicator of how they are perceived in their respective schools and districts. Take their lead and follow their tweets to gain an inside perspective as to how the best in our profession lead their organizations.
RB: Finally, what advice do you have for the educator who is contemplating a move to building or district leadership positions and how can your personal path provide valuable lessons for their prospective journey?
MR: One piece of advice I would offer to any educator considering a move to administration is to be sure that you are doing it for the right reasons. By the right reasons, I mean to influence student learning outcomes at a larger level and to be a leader in the change process for a school looking to improve collectively. It is not glamorous work and can quickly lose its luster after a few challenging meetings. If a prospective administrator’s bottom line is to make more money, then I have news for them: The hours you will put in will not equate to the increased wages you might receive. The principalship and superintendency are not 9-5 jobs. You have to love the position. Being a principal and not in the classroom is still hard for me, even though I have been an administrator for ten years. I guess that speaks to the appreciation I have for the teaching-learning experience.
Leadership Strategies For Building the Mindset Around Student Growth | Matt Renwick
In 2006, Dr. Carol Dweck published the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She has studied people’s attitudes toward learning for some time. Her work revolves around comparing fixed mindset (mistakes are indicators of failure; intelligence is fixed) and growth mindset (mistakes are opportunities for learning; intelligence can be developed). Her research made an impact on the educational landscape. Many teachers and school leaders started proclaiming that they were “growth mindset oriented.” A fixed mindset was the enemy. If a student became discouraged, the objective was to praise their effort and encourage them to persist within the adverse situation.
Fast forward ten years to the present day. Growth mindset has become a part of education’s lexicon. However, this has not lead to widespread improvement in student dispositions toward learning. There are a few reasons. First, Dweck believes teachers and parents often misuse her research when interacting with kids (Barshay, 2015). Specifically, teachers praise effort but are not as effective in offering feedback to improve performance. Also, adults would claim they use a growth mindset, but their actions promoted a fixed mindset. In addition, Dweck has revisited her work since it first came to the educational forefront. One area that has been revised is the strict dichotomy between fixed vs. growth mindset. “Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too” (Dweck, 2016).
As one school leader to another, I ask you: If Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the area of psychology and learning, can revise her current thinking, what is stopping our teachers and us from the doing the same? Her example gives us permission to question our current strategies in how we empower students, engage parents, and enable educators in our respective buildings. This article will describe the better practices in education that encourage student growth, the challenges to expect in this instructional change and the indicators of success. We will focus on four areas of consideration for facilitating this change: Cultivating the conditions for success; Clarity above all; Feedback, feedback, feedback; Authentic work for a real audience. To be clear, this is not a prescription for success. Rather, it is one pathway your leadership team might take to promote a growth mindset in all of your learners, teachers, and students.
Cultivating the Conditions for Success
Before a school can move forward toward developing a collective growth mindset, the educators have to assess current reality. People need to understand that everyone has room to grow and should strive to become better. I like the verb “cultivate” instead of create. It evokes imagery of a gardener, tending their soil in preparation for a growing season. Amendments such as fertilizer and compost are added to help ensure a healthy harvest. Weeds are removed so the garden can flourish. To follow the metaphor, the level of health of a school’s soil is largely comprised of the trust colleagues have for each other as well. Trust does not happen naturally; it too has to be cultivated with intentional leadership acts.
One activity I have facilitated with teachers is allowing them to share their concerns regarding the past. Teachers write a statement which articulates their issues on a small piece of paper. A sentence stem, such as “In the past, I felt…” helps get people started. The school leader can model this first, sharing out loud any grievance they might have kept welled up until that moment. Educators appreciate it when leaders demonstrate what is asked of them. It conveys honesty and makes ourselves more transparent. Once teachers have an opportunity to share their personal concerns verbally, everyone puts their note in an empty suitcase. Then the principal closes it up and announces, “I appreciate your feedback. These concerns are mine now. I will do my best to address them in future conversations with everyone.” Staff will feel listened to, acknowledged, and more ready to move forward. Principals can take this one step further and categorize the concerns by themes. This will provide focus and allow school leaders to prioritize staff concerns and effectively address them. (Thank you to my superintendent Luke Francois for sharing this idea with me.)
Once major concerns have been heard, a second step toward cultivating the conditions for success is developing collective commitments. These are like norms, created as a faculty that serves as guidelines for professional conversations. A difference between collective commitments and norms is the former is directly connected with the mission and vision of the school, more like principles. To get started, leaders provide different professional articles for faculty to read ahead of time. Each article should speak to one of the school’s or district’s initiatives for the school year. Encourage teachers to closely read the text of their choice with a pen in hand and be ready for a conversation with colleagues. Doing some reading ahead of time will prepare everyone for more productive dialogue. Assumptions are not made about any educator’s background knowledge. Once teachers have read and discussed the content, the entire faculty can develop collective commitments. A consensus strategy such as “Fist to Five” can help ensure faculty buy-in. The alignment between mission, vision, and collective commitments ensures goal alignment.
Essential to the success of this work is having the time, resources, and training to engage in it. To capture more time, a number of schools and districts have gone to early student release once a week. This time is then allocated for teacher teams to look at student work and results, and adjust their instruction to meet students' needs better. Educators’ mindsets start to bend toward student learning results instead of only instruction. Professional resources and training should be a school priority. Within this conditions, teachers can start to emerge as leaders. The autonomy provided within the commitments and goals of the school treats teachers like the professionals that they are. This type of environment can lead to a necessary level of trust that allows all school members to start taking risks in their personal learning endeavors.
Clarity Above All
The work that educators engage in to develop their mission, vision statements, collective commitments, and building goals aren’t worth the paper they are printed on if they do not translate into action. Clarity about our work is achieved when there is complete alignment between the more abstract artifacts previously mentioned and the concrete actions of teachers and leaders in classrooms. We know we are on the right pathway when the assessment results reveal student growth over time and achievement of essential learning objectives.
One of the best ways to achieve clarity in our work is by looking at the types of assessments and the priority placed on each. Assessments in school generally fall into three areas: formative, interim, and summative. Formative assessments include helping students understand the criteria for success, offering and receiving feedback, and providing students with opportunities to improve on their work through reflection and self-assessment. Interim, or benchmark, assessments are more summative in nature. They serve as checkpoints in a student’s learning progression toward essential understandings and skills. Summative assessments, such as exams, quizzes, and projects, help teachers and students gauge what was learned and at what level of understanding.
If a school directs the majority of their focus on summative assessments, then teachers’ mindsets become more concerned about the results of student learning versus the process students took to get there. Summative assessments are fixed; once you take the test, or place a score on student work, the learning stops. In an educational world hyper focused on end results and ensuring all students succeed, it is little surprise that a growth mindset can be so fleeting in classrooms. Teachers and students are clear about the purpose, but the purpose may not lead to deeper learning in these situations.
To address this situation, school leaders have to shift their mindsets by placing a greater priority on students and teachers capturing, reflecting on, and sharing formative assessment results. In my prior school, we did this by selecting six weeklong windows during the school year in which each student would upload a writing artifact into their digital portfolios. We used FreshGrade to house and share out students’ best work. Before each window, teachers would identify the learning targets to be addressed and then prepare instruction to guide students to achieve them. The fruits of their labor - informative texts generated by the students independently - was showcased within FreshGrade’s web-based portfolio system. In addition, families and colleagues could see growth over time in each student’s writing from fall to spring. To ensure that this process remained formative, teachers were expected to confer with each student while they uploaded their work, asking questions such as, “Why did you select this piece?”, “What did you do well in your writing? And “What do you think you need to work on for next time?”. Within a portfolio system, students start to see learning as a dynamic process instead of a static event. Clarity is evident in what the students produce and how they grow.
Feedback, Feedback, Feedback
I list this element of formative assessment three times because it is so important for developing a collective mindset around student growth. Feedback is any information that helps to guide or affirm student work and offers pathways for improving upon it. Feedback is also the information a teacher receives from a student in response to their instruction. Examples include written and verbal comments and reflective questions that focus a student’s attention to their process. NonExamples of feedback include grades and test scores (summative assessments). To be sure, not all feedback is created equal. If students are unable to use the comments and questions to further their learning, it renders the teacher’s efforts as ineffective. “The most important things about feedback is what the students do with it” (Wiliam, 2016). Therefore, it is critical that teachers receive training on how to best provide and use feedback in the classroom.
The best feedback for developing a growth mindset can be categorized into two areas: Descriptive and prescriptive (Kroog, Hess, & Ruiz-Primo, 2016). Descriptive feedback is objective commentary about the student’s work. The language should be specific and revolve around the attributes of the content, skill or strategy. Descriptive feedback should acknowledge the student as the learner, allowing him or her to own their learning by connecting what they accomplished with their efforts. An example of feedback on a piece of writing might be, “Kyle, when you used sensory details in this story, I could visualize the scene.” This type of feedback gives students a window into their current reality. It also offers an opportunity to celebrate what’s going well. Conversely, prescriptive feedback provides students with a pathway for improvement. It can be a direct suggestion or a thoughtful question. Following the same example, a teacher might want Kyle to expand on his descriptions by asking, “What other senses might you include in this description of the forest?” Of course, all of this feedback is only as effective as the level of clarity conveyed to understand the criteria for success (Hattie, Fisher, & Frey, 2016).
As school leaders, we can promote these better practices during professional learning days and in the classroom. For all staff training, teachers can watch examples of other teachers using feedback in effective ways. The Teaching Channel offers hundreds of videos of real teachers in action, with dozens depicting effective feedback and formative assessment strategies. Teachers can also read related articles together, such as the ones cited in this section, and have professional conversations about the information. Once teachers have enough background knowledge about the nature of effective feedback, school leaders can model this skill when conducting instructional walks in classrooms. These walks are 15-20 minute classroom visits documented with descriptive and prescriptive feedback. Instructional walks are formative in nature, and should not be considered part of the evaluation process. With instructional walks, we are “looking first for the teacher’s strengths, noticing where support is needed, and also discerning instructional patterns across the school” (Routman, 2014, p. 198). I use a paper notebook and a pen, write what I observe, and then have a brief conversation with the teacher about what I observed. Before I leave the classroom, I offer positive affirmation of the day’s instruction to build and maintain teacher-principal trust. This process models for teachers how they might interact with their students, as well as how students might interact with each other in the form of peer feedback.
While what we say and do not say is critical for student growth, the best type of feedback comes from the students. It is in our interactions with kids where we can glean all types of information and adjust our instruction to meet their needs. This student-teacher interaction is dependent on the quality of the relationships in the classroom. That leads us into our last section on the importance of authenticity and audience in our daily work in schools.
Real Work for an Authentic Audience
If the only person that regularly sees student work is their teacher, we deprive our kids of opportunities to make their voices be heard. Bringing in an authentic audience for student learning increases motivation, raises the stakes in a positive way and facilitates the celebration of everyone’s efforts and accomplishments. Coupled with learning tasks that closely resemble what one might experience in everyday life, students will see that their work is important not only to them but others as well.
Preparing students to accomplish real work for an authentic audience does not necessarily mean teachers have to develop elaborate projects that take weeks at a time to accomplish. One of the easiest ways to facilitate this is by utilizing a digital portfolio to publish student work (mentioned previously). This is what many professionals do in their occupations: Maintaining a professional website that highlights their skills and abilities. The audience for student portfolios - families and other teachers - can respond to what students publish in the form of comments. Teachers can educate parents about how to offer better feedback by modeling it within the digital portfolio ecosystem. School leaders can offer after school sessions for families to learn the technology and how to comment on student work.
While celebrating student work is an essential component of building trust, we also need to honor the process that students took to get to the point of proficiency. That is why I advocate that students and teachers maintain growth portfolios in addition to best work portfolios previously described. Growth portfolios document the progress students are making as learners as well as the processes they used to make the progress. These types of portfolios are more teacher-directed, especially when monitoring progress with digital tools. However, there is no reason students should not be an integral part of this assessment process. One possibility is for every student to have a blog. Suggested blogging tools include Kidblog, Edublogs, and Wordpress. Students can use these online journaling forums to post first drafts on topics of choice and expressing their thinking regarding interests or content areas. Teachers can show students how to comment on each other's blogs effectively. This practice promotes a growth mindset because it says, “We are all learners here.” Competition is reduced, and mistake-making is recognized because of the visible and collaborative nature of blogging. An audience that consists of peers and families might be all that is needed for shining a broader light on the real work students do in school.
After almost a decade in school administration, I have come to believe that our actions as leaders make the biggest difference in the learning lives of students and teachers. We model the learning process by being learners ourselves. This includes co-creating an environment that sets everyone up for success, being clear about our goals and what excellence looks like, offering feedback in a productive manner, and providing an authentic audience for our work. A growth mindset is more about what we do rather than anything we might say. We develop this mindset by living out our beliefs in our everyday actions. When a faculty’s collective disposition moves from “We have a growth mindset.” to “This is how we do things here.”, a school can become a true learning community.
Further information can be explored in Renwick's recent eBook
Barshay, J. (2015). Growth mindset guru Carol Dweck says teachers and parents often use her research incorrectly. The Hechinger Report.
Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Matt Renwick started as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students at a junior high, which developed into an assistant principalship along with my athletic director duties. As an Elementary Principal for the Mineral Point Unified School, Mineral Point, Wisconsin he enjoys the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education.
Dr. Rod Berger, an expert in communications and public relations for EdTech startups, is a global education media personality featured on edCircuit, in EdTech Review India, Scholastic's District Administrator, and Forbes. As an industry personality, Dr. Berger has interviewed Ministers of Education, leading voices like Sir Ken Robinson, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and others.